A couple of weeks ago, both of my children came home from school with a sore throat. I told them that we’d see how they feel in the morning, but if they still had sore throats, they’d stay home from school.
“But what about rollerskating?” my 12-year-old asked.
Further explanation revealed that the 12-year-old’s class was told that if the entire class can get perfect attendance through March, they would win a rollerskating field trip.
Though this is the first I had heard about a rollerskating trip, it was not the first I had noticed an emphasis on attendance at my children’s neighborhood CPS school. Progress reports have been returned with stars over the zero listed beside “Total Days Absent,” and there is a list posted outside the office for students who have not missed any days of school.
In the morning, both children woke up with a mild fever. I declared no school for them, but the 12-year-old rolled over in bed and grunted, “But what about rollerskating?”
I still don’t have a good answer for her on the class trip to go rollerskating, but this incident has thrown into stark relief the very real problems of setting up perfect attendance as the gold standard.
The Problems with Perfect Attendance
I have been particularly surprised by the school’s emphasis on perfect attendance this year since one clear strategy for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 is for people to stay home when they are sick.
But that is not only the case with COVID. Having children (and school staff) stay home when they are ill mitigates the spread of all contagious illnesses. From strep throat to the common cold, a child staying home when unwell means another child is less likely to get sick. Creating incentives for perfect attendance only means that some children will feel motivated to come to school even when they are not feeling well.
But the problem runs deeper than spreading a cold. For children with chronic illnesses or with underlying medical problems, perfect attendance policies are inherently exclusionary. They are also likely to discriminate. In a city where Black and Brown children are significantly more likely to live in industrial “sacrifice zones,” and thus suffer health problems, perfect attendance incentives are more likely to benefit white students and penalize Black and Brown students for environmental conditions beyond their control.
Why Strive for Perfect Attendance?
There are good reasons to encourage students to be in school whenever possible. This year has certainly taught my children and me the disruptions that arise when large numbers of students are out of class. In many ways, the classroom is a community learning together, and when members of the community are not present, the learning community is fractured.
But I seriously question whether the incentives around “perfect attendance” and the subsequent culture it builds are genuinely motivating for students. I would love to see CPS investing in programming that keeps students wanting to come to school.
For example, one of my sixth-grader’s classmates tends to show up regularly on Thursdays but has sporadic attendance other days of the week. This classmate was in the school choir, which rehearses on Thursdays. A few weeks ago, my 12-year-old reports that this student was told they may no longer participate in choir, which means the school may have removed the one activity that kept that student coming.
In Chicago Public Schools, as in the broader culture in the United States, the balance of carrots and sticks tilts toward substantive punitive measures for non-compliance (no more choir) and somewhat superficial exclusionary rewards (rollerskating) for compliance. So students already inclined to attend regularly are rewarded for their behavior, while those students who may struggle to get to school are excluded rather than engaged.
To be fair to the adults in my children’s school, the push for “Perfect Attendance” is born out of pressures from beyond the walls of that school. Schools often experience accountability sanctions and funding cuts when students miss school. In Chicago, the School Quality Ratings Program factors in attendance. In 2019, CPS reduced the weight of attendance in the SQRP.
Currently, the district is revamping its entire accountability system. For now, it is unclear what role attendance will play in that system.
I, for one, would love to see CPS build a culture that is less focused on the carrots and sticks of butts in seats and more focused on how to make the school experience feel more meaningful and worthwhile for students.
We Actually Don’t Need Hustle Culture in Schools
When it was clear that my children would be staying home from school, I contacted the central office and then sent a message to each of my children’s teachers to let them know they would be home sick.
Several teachers responded with, “Okay. I’ll post their assignments on Google classroom.” I responded, “Thanks, they’ll do the assignments when they are feeling better.” While I appreciated the teachers’ flexibility and willingness to provide resources for my children, I wanted my children to rest and recover – not do homework or worry about what they might be “missing” on a single day of school.
This hustle culture in school sets children up for an adult life that attaches value to productivity while devaluing rest and care. Such a culture—rooted in white supremacy—kills creativity and divergent thinking, precisely the skills our children need, growing up to a future that promises bigger, more complicated problems by the day.
Further, hustle culture is bound to leave behind students who—for many reasons, some visible and some invisible—may need that rest to recover and grow. Children’s mental health has gotten a lot of news coverage lately. But when schools create and sustain a culture that runs counter to restorative practices, students learn to suppress their own needs to serve a larger system that ultimately does not care for them.
School culture built around rest, care, and creativity can be cultivated somewhat on a school-by-school basis by at least in part by stopping the prizes for “Perfect Attendance.” But until the issue is addressed at the institutional level through funding structures and school rating systems, the incentives are not set up for care but for hustle.
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